Environmental assessment in an ever-changing world

Environmental assessment in an ever-changing world


Speaking at Rhodes University, Dr Peter Chapman, risk analyst for International Environmental Consulting Company Golder Associates stated that “there are no easy answers,” when he addressed fellow scientists and audience, in his talk titled, “Risk Assessment Theory, Fundamentals and Common Misapplications.”


Dr Chapman, guest lecturer of the Institute for Water Research, implored the audience of future water researchers to use all the tools available to them in risk assessment and reminded them, “There are no perfect tools; there are just tools in the tool box.”


The Canadian researcher has traveled the world doing risk assessment. He defined his work: “It’s a way of putting things together to evaluate and assess probabilities for adverse effects of different activities or stressors.”


He emphasised that risk analysis is not only concerned with contaminants, as it is commonly thought, but is interested rather in large-scale, long-term implications: populations, genetic diversity, changes in trajectories.


However he was clear that while phenomena such as climate change, habitat change and exotic species all threaten environments, one must be careful not to confuse correlation with causation when determining the source of a problem.“Be careful of what seems obvious,” he said.


He further cautioned against obvious answers and making assumptions in risk assessment. “You need to get all the information, all the data, talk to people...find out what you know, what you don’t know and what you need to know.” He encouraged the audience to speak to other experts, scientists, and lay people to gather as much insight into an environmental situation as possible.


Using case studies, Dr Chapman illustrated diverse instances of risk assessment. In one study, there were high concentrations of selenium, a naturally occurring nonmetal, essential for human health and animals and some plants, but harmful in high dosages. Here the issue was not the existence of the stressor, but the abundance of it, highlighting the importance of knowing the stressor - be it chemical, mineral organic or inorganic.


Preferring prevention to correction, Dr Chapman underscored the merits of evaluating and assessing an activity’s potential environmental affect, rather than reflecting back once a negative change has occurred. “We often don’t do a comparison of the risk of taking an action versus the risk of not taking an action,” he said, “It’s a lot of tradeoffs.”


The primary purpose of the environmental risk analysis is to protect the integrity of populations, but there are numerous positive byproducts, including saving costs and resources and reducing environmental footprints.


An assessment often involves a process of elimination said Dr Chapman, explaining that much of the work uses modeling and constructing worst case scenarios. Equations are used to calculate risk, however there is no such thing as one hundred percent certainty. “There is no shame in making a mistake,” reiterated Dr Chapman, reinforcing how important they are to the learning process.


Regarding climate change, he believes that science needs to determine the most important issues and decide what to focus on. It is a challenging time for science, he acknowledged, as there are no longer environmental baselines to compare to, but ever-shifting reference baselines. “It is an exciting time for scientists, though - terrible in terms of the environment, but exciting in terms of dealing with this problem,” he added.


Picture and story by Hailey Gaunt


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